Danielle Pafunda: Manhater
Review by Ariella Ruth
(Dusie Press, 2012)
Manhater’s three sections of poetry crawl with worms and reek of rapid and reminiscent decay. Decay that one might see in a hospital room, something deadly, overpowering the body’s system, but also the kind of everyday decay that stays with us as each moment passes to the next. Every small utterance in these poems is bursting through its threads. The character’s speech penetrates the seams and opens like an orgasmic staph infection, bleeding and weeping for attention. These poems want their voices heard and want to be asked questions, but they are firmly settled in their unique world with no escape as they deny cure.
Danielle Pafunda’s Manhater is an ode to gruesome scenes, waste, and necessity. This ode backdrops around the strong figure of Mommy V. Although she has babies, she is not the typical mother figure. She isn’t human but rather something from the future, a collective person representing the post-female, not quite of this world, an interspecies or shape-shifter surviving solo without a husband/father figure in sight. “What happens when that feminine figure coded as monster and mother and reproductive body turns to violence? Manhater explores what happens in this mode,” states Pafunda in an interview with Andy Fitch in The Conversant. She continues by saying that “it might be violent to make this work, to make these kind [sic] of poems, but that’s part of what’s interesting.” The violence of Mommy V’s world penetrates through the surface qualities of an endearing and nurturing mother. A mother like that cannot survive in Mommy V’s world.
Pafunda’s language is precise and doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat the rawness of the story. Each page begins a new “barren fuckscape”: a post-apocalyptic universe where all elements of sweetness are gone, and only a wasteland of dirty copulation remains. These poems are deeply rooted in human bodily experience while simultaneously drenched and difficult to digest. This allows the reader to strangely savor her diction: “gush suck,” “vermin, venison, pests,” “scab-ridden belly,” “the morning vomit.” Pafunda, who is involved with the Gurlesque (a community of female artists whose poetics are kitsch and blunt, sexual and nontraditional), says in the same interview: “I want to use the grotesque, and the feminine grotesque. I want to use them to horrify.” This poem-world that Pafunda dictates is disturbing and twisted, yet magnetic and narrative in its cadence. Readers can’t help but rubberneck on the scenes that Mommy V walks in and out of like a revolving door of disease: “Mommy surveys the throw-up, the sunrise / barf, the confirmation that every morning / comes hard into the room and frisks you to death.” While the perspective changes in all three sections—as does the writing, as does the blatant and honest suffering—the language remains present throughout.
In section one, Pafunda’s words are harsh yet frail with a kind of pounding that can only come with a character like Mommy V, whose darkest moments are shown in the first few pages: “Mommy gives him a sure thing. / She gives him her favorite disease. / And death.” Even with the repugnant descriptions, Pafunda provides a sheer layer of sexuality that broods beneath the surface: “Mommy’s pelvic floor is roaring again.” This cocoon of sexuality begs to be broken. Section one reads like stage directions, and Pafunda’s theater is visceral and filled with detail.
In section two, Mommy V turns into the I, and each poem’s title beginning with “In This Plate” sets the tone as illness leaks and spreads. This personal I is just as tormented as Mommy V, but more descriptive and relatable. In the first poem of this section titled “In This Plate My Illness Is Visible,” Pafunda writes:
For the first time in centuries
a technician can wheel me
into my sick meat tube
and my meat registers.
The landscape turns to cannibalism as human flesh becomes meat, and hospital rooms feel more like factory farms. Though we know this speaker so well at this point, as section two continues on, we lose the sense of personhood and drift onto a page where the subject is more an illness-ridden object that still contains a voice. As infection spreads, the worms keep coming and continue to devour the sense of personhood more and more. With mention of discharge, the poems in Manhater are a way for the speaker’s body, and our bodies, to release all that is unhealthy and all that is held under fragile skin. Even in its horror, this shedding is beautiful: “Out seeped all the jolly worms / I’d been hoarding.”
In section three, Pafunda shifts the tone again but doesn’t lose the narration. Something settles here, and again the reader connects back to the honest language that expresses the ghastly core of humanity, and the story of a person created by her/its own surroundings: “I can’t have an orgasm / large enough to solve my problems.” The speaker turns straightforward statements into deeper confessions, brushing on sexuality, while retaining the sense of something impending, aging, and rotting.
Manhater is grounded in its own universe of sound, gore, and a startling sense of aliveness. This book shows the deep physicality of pain and deterioration, which allows the reader to connect with something ingrained in collective human suffering. Manhater creates an astounding sense of acceptance for all that is ugly around us and even sheds light on the slight beauty found within that. Even though the scent of decay is prominent, the reader can sense the underlying notion of how humans alter and move through the world:
I have heard that blood expires,
but keep this sack close by,
tied to a body racked in the bedroom
and I will use it to scuttle my way back in.
The poems in Manhater, the written body that Danielle Pafunda has created, scream to be heard but are hushed by a more over-powering force of silence. Through this silence, the reader can still hear the speaker’s blood pumping loudly as we wait wide-eyed and listen.